Contacts: Dr. John Walker, 325-653-4576, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Ronald Pope, 325-653-4576, email@example.com
Dr. Reid Redden, 325-653-4576, firstname.lastname@example.org
COMFORT — More than 70 people attending the 2018 American Sheep Industry Convention in San Antonio, including those from several U.S. states, Canada and Australia, got a firsthand look at sheep production in Texas during their recent tour of Hillingdon Ranch in Comfort.
The group was given an inside look at the operation of the 130-year-old family-owned ranch, which not only produces fine wool sheep, but also Angus cattle, Angora goats and white-tailed deer.
“We selected our animal mix based on the native plants adapted to the Hillingdon Ranch,” said Robin Giles, who along with wife Carol, son Grant and daughter-in-law Misty, manage the 10,000 acre-plus ranch. “Most places select a type of livestock and then manage their land to accommodate them. We do it the other way around.”
Currently the ranch supports about 4,000 goats, 200 head of cattle and about 500 sheep.
“We can operate efficiently by mixing the animals,” Giles said. “It takes about 25 acres to accommodate one cow, but by mixing them we get that down to an 11-12 acre per animal stocking rate. Small is good here, so we don’t buy large animals that require more acreage.”
Giles said the ranch has always run goats, which help keep the brush under control.
“You can’t afford to control the cedar that takes over this country mechanically, but with goats you can control it and also produce a product,” he said. “The mohair these goats produce can be stored for a long time, so when prices are low, we can hold on to it until they improve, which will eventually happen.”
Giles said sheep were introduced to the ranch in 1910 and of all the animals have provided “the most consistent and dependable stream of income” for the ranch. The majority of the sheep now produced on the ranch are Debouillet sheep bred from Delaine-Merino and Rambouillet crosses.
The breed is a medium size, well adapted to the arid range conditions of the southwestern U.S., and produces a high quality fine wool fleece.
Because the sheep Texas producers select tend to fit the environment so well, they are able to provide some of the finest wool in the U.S., said Dr. Ronald Pope, Texas A&M AgriLife Research director of the Bill Sims Wool and Mohair Research Laboratory in San Angelo, one of the tour participants.
“Texas producers have developed both fine wool and hair sheep from breeders who have used intensive genetic selection over time to make positive improvement within their flocks,” he said.
Grant Giles said the ranch’s ecologically diverse variety of plant life, which includes brush, forbs and grass, provides adequate nourishment for the animals.
“All of these plants have a purpose if you have the right animals to use them,” he said. “Our livestock is selected for adaptability, and we are able to use the land more efficiently by having a mix of animals that can get the most from the variety of vegetation.”
He said sheep not only help with the effective use of this vegetation, they also perform better than cattle during drought conditions.
“One of the major concerns we have with the sheep is if there is too much rain,” he explained. “Excess moisture often leads to conditions for the brown stomach worm parasite, which is one of the biggest problems for sheep production.”
Internal parasites are a problem for all small ruminants, said Dr. Reid Redden, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service sheep and goat specialist, San Angelo, also a tour attendee.
“Unfortunately, many of the dewormers currently in use have been used for decades so the parasites have developed some resistance to them,” Redden said. “One way the Hillingdon Ranch and other producers have been successful in meeting this challenge is by selecting and breeding sheep that demonstrate a greater resistance to internal parasites. Another way they help ensure animal health is to provide an acceptable stocking rate so the animals don’t have to struggle for survival.”
Another major challenge to sheep production in Texas, as elsewhere, is predation.
“Back in the 1970s we lost about 450 sheep over a three-month period to coyotes,” said Robin Giles. “They were especially hard on the kids in the flock. We had to go out and eliminate the predators in order to save the rest of them.”
Dr. John Walker, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, said the center has collaborated with the Hillingdon Ranch on their operational efforts to produce hardy animals with quality wool and mohair.
“We have worked with them on wool and mohair improvement through our laboratory and by performing ultrasounds on their sheep to help them determine pregnancy rates,” Walker said. “What’s unusual about the Hillingdon Ranch is they do not provide supplemental feed to their sheep and they don’t deworm them, so they are raised with minimal human input. This way they are bred for positive survivability and these traits get passed along to their offspring.”
Robin Giles said wool prices, as well as increased demand for lamb and goat meat, especially among nontraditional and ethnic consumers, bodes well for Texas and U.S. producers, providing they can meet the challenges of predation, parasites and proper land use.
Jimmie Ruth Evans, the first female president of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers’ Association, also on the tour, offered some additional perspective.
“Raising sheep is a possibility for some, but doing it successfully has primarily been by large family operations with sufficient land or access to land,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, with the trends in land fragmentation and the rising cost of land, it’s going to be hard for small ranchers to make a living from raising sheep – or goats.
“My suggestion would be for the small-acreage rancher wanting to go this route to have a fulltime job and work the ranch mainly on weekends for supplemental income. And you should also be doing it for the right reasons. In my experience, the people who are the most satisfied or successful in this business are those who love the land and love the lifestyle.”